"Homo Deus" is a provocative but ultimately scattered, shallow, and incorrect analysis of liberal political history and what recent developments in our scientific understanding mean for the future of our society. It's a frustrating book to review. There are a few great frameworks in here that changed how I saw the world. But there's a liberal slathering of hype and statements that are just wrong.
Let's start with the good stuff. His most interesting observations are about the relationships between meaning, power, religion, and science. Harari claims that until a few hundred years ago, religion offered a deal where people accepted their place in the social hierarchy in exchange for meaning in their lives - "Meaning and authority always go hand in hand." But the deal changed as we transitioned to modernity...
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
And then he makes an extraordinary claim:
It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.... Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.
Some pretty bold words. I'm really not sure he is correct here (what is the "collective institution" of science?) but this is a fascinating way of viewing the relationship between science and religion. As he says at the end of the chapter:
Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.
I can't help but notice parallels between his thinking here and Moldbug's conception of the "Cathedral"... makes me wonder if Harari has been reading some of the alt-right manifestos...
Harari also has a reasonable narrative around the development of liberal political philosophy ("This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world"). His stuff on evolutionary humanism is pretty radical but thought-provoking ("According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward"). Where he starts to go off the rails is in his interpretation of recent developments in neuroscience and his vision of our political future.
Harari begins by claiming that humanity's future will be geared around a few key projects:
- Conquer mortality
- Find the key to happiness
- Acquire divine powers
The rest of the book speculates about how these quests will upend our current liberal humanist social structure. Harari quickly dismisses the viability of liberalism because "recent psychological research" has shown that we have "multiple selves" and liberalism is apparently incompatible with having different moods sometimes. Oh, and he also settled the question of whether or not we have free will too. This guy is on a roll! I was pretty dismayed by his cherry-picking of the literature and his reliance on pretty flimsy anecdotes to argue that liberal humanism is doomed. I remain unconvinced. See "The Beginning of Infinity" for a much more thoughtful approach to future political organization.
Harari really lost credibility when he went on his "Data-ism" kick. Apparently this is the new "dogma" that is "taking over" the sciences. This is essentially the idea that all organisms are just glorified data-processing machines. A quick Google search reveals that the only major proponent of "data-ism" besides Harari is NYT journalist Steve Lohr. Ahem. Another example of Harari's extraordinary claims and lack of extraordinary evidence.
There are a few other interesting ideas in this book:
- Medicine shifting from healing the sick to upgrading the healthy (and implications for social equality)
- Intelligence vs. consciousness (does it matter?)
- Corporations as gods - what would it mean for an algorithm to be a truly autonomous agent that could own property?
While these ideas made the book worth reading, Harari's hype and his cavalier treatment of the facts left a bad taste in my mouth.
My top highlights are below.
1 - The New Human Agenda
The same three problems preoccupied the people of twentieth-century China, of medieval India and of ancient Egypt. Famine, plague and war were always at the top of the list.
About 2.8 million French – 15 per cent of the population – starved to death between 1692 and 1694, while the Sun King, Louis XIV, was dallying with his mistresses in Versailles. The following year, 1695, famine struck Estonia, killing a fifth of the population. In 1696 it was the turn of Finland, where a quarter to a third of people died. Scotland suffered from severe famine between 1695 and 1698, some districts losing up to 20 per cent of their inhabitants.
There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.
In 1974 the first World Food Conference was convened in Rome, and delegates were treated to apocalyptic scenarios. They were told that there was no way for China to feed its billion people, and that the world’s most populous country was heading towards catastrophe. In fact, it was heading towards the greatest economic miracle in history.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition.
In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.
Whereas in March 1520, when the Spanish fleet arrived, Mexico was home to 22 million people, by December only 14 million were still alive. Smallpox was only the first blow. While the new Spanish masters were busy enriching themselves and exploiting the natives, deadly waves of flu, measles and other infectious diseases struck Mexico one after the other, until in 1580 its population was down to less than 2 million.
Until the early twentieth century, about a third of children died before reaching adulthood from a combination of malnutrition and disease.
SARS, for example, initially raised fears of a new Black Death, but eventually ended with the death of less than 1,000 people worldwide.
In 2015 doctors announced the discovery of a completely new type of antibiotic – teixobactin – to which bacteria have no resistance as yet. Some scholars believe teixobactin may prove to be a game-changer in the fight against highly resistant germs.
Microorganisms may have 4 billion years of cumulative experience fighting organic enemies, but they have exactly zero experience fighting bionic predators, and would therefore find it doubly difficult to evolve effective defences.
The same tools that enable doctors to quickly identify and cure new illnesses may also enable armies and terrorists to engineer even more terrible diseases and doomsday pathogens. It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology.
Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality.
Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.
In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves. Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing.
And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
In the twentieth century we have almost doubled life expectancy from forty to seventy, so in the twenty-first century we should at least be able to double it again to 150.
Although average life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years, it is unwarranted to extrapolate and conclude that we can double it again to 150 in the coming century. In 1900 global life expectancy was no higher than forty because many people died young from malnutrition, infectious diseases and violence. Yet those who escaped famine, plague and war could live well into their seventies and eighties, which is the natural life span of Homo sapiens. Contrary to common notions, seventy-year-olds weren’t considered rare freaks of nature in previous centuries. Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants. Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties.
In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.
Once people think (with or without good reason) that they have a serious chance of escaping death, the desire for life will refuse to go on pulling the rickety wagon of art, ideology and religion, and will sweep forward like an avalanche.
The second big project on the human agenda will probably be to find the key to happiness.
Even the welfare system was originally planned in the interest of the nation rather than of needy individuals. When Otto von Bismarck pioneered state pensions and social security in late nineteenth-century Germany, his chief aim was to ensure the loyalty of the citizens rather than to increase their well-being. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy.
In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania – developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability – about one person in 100,000 commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty-five people per 100,000 take their own lives annually.
The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation. According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones. Jeremy Bentham similarly maintained that nature gave dominion over man to two masters – pleasure and pain – and they alone determine everything we do, say and think.
In 2011, 3.5 million American children were taking medications for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). In the UK the number rose from 92,000 in 1997 to 786,000 in 2012.
What some people hope to get by studying, working or raising a family, others try to obtain far more easily through the right dosage of molecules. This is an existential threat to the social and economic order, which is why countries wage a stubborn, bloody and hopeless war on biochemical crime.
In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum.
The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.
However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend. Many scholars try to predict how the world will look in the year 2100 or 2200. This is a waste of time. Any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible.
In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus. This third project obviously subsumes the first two projects, and is fuelled by them.
If you speak with the experts, many of them will tell you that we are still very far away from genetically engineered babies or human-level artificial intelligence. But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. Hence, ‘very far away’ may mean twenty years, and ‘never’ may denote no more than fifty.
Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in ten years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush. Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it.
(A famous – and probably apocryphal – anecdote tells of a meeting in 1923 between Nobel Prize laureate Anatole France and the beautiful and talented dancer Isadora Duncan. Discussing the then popular eugenics movement, Duncan said, ‘Just imagine a child with my beauty and your brains!’ France responded, ‘Yes, but imagine a child with my beauty and your brains.’)
Healing is the initial justification for every upgrade.
Marx forgot that capitalists know how to read. At first only a handful of disciples took Marx seriously and read his writings. But as these socialist firebrands gained adherents and power, the capitalists became alarmed. They too perused Das Kapital, adopting many of the tools and insights of Marxist analysis. In the twentieth century everybody from street urchins to presidents embraced a Marxist approach to economics and history. Even diehard capitalists who vehemently resisted the Marxist prognosis still made use of the Marxist diagnosis.
This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.
There is no surer sign that something is wrong at the Joneses’ than a neglected lawn in the front yard. Grass is nowadays the most widespread crop in the USA after maize and wheat, and the lawn industry (plants, manure, mowers, sprinklers, gardeners) accounts for billions of dollars every year.
The following chapters discuss how humanism – the worship of humankind – has conquered the world. Yet the rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall.
We can already see this process at work in geriatric hospital wards. Due to an uncompromising humanist belief in the sanctity of human life, we keep people alive till they reach such a pitiful state that we are forced to ask, ‘What exactly is so sacred here?’
PART I - Homo sapiens Conquers the World
2 - The Anthropocene
How many wolves live today in Germany, the land of the Grimm brothers, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf? Less than a hundred.
Since 1970, despite growing ecological awareness, wildlife populations have halved (not that they were prospering in 1970).
Since the appearance of life, about 4 billion years ago, never has a single species changed the global ecology all by itself.
Now humankind is poised to replace natural selection with intelligent design, and to extend life from the organic realm into the inorganic.
Today more than 90 per cent of all large animals are domesticated.
Unfortunately, humans can cause tremendous suffering to farm animals in various ways, even while ensuring their survival and reproduction. The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant on human farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs, without paying any economic penalty. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply. Doesn’t that contradict the most basic principles of natural selection? The theory of evolution maintains that all instincts, drives and emotions have evolved in the sole interest of survival and reproduction. If so, doesn’t the continuous reproduction of farm animals prove that all their real needs are met? How can a pig have a ‘need’ that is not really needed for his survival and reproduction?
For emotions are not a uniquely human quality – they are common to all mammals (as well as to all birds and probably to some reptiles and even fish). All mammals evolved emotional abilities and needs, and from the fact that pigs are mammals we can safely deduce that they have emotions.
‘Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.
How exactly does a baboon calculate probabilities? He certainly doesn’t draw a pencil from behind his ear, a notebook from a back pocket, and start computing running speeds and energy levels with a calculator. Rather, the baboon’s entire body is the calculator. What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.
Those baby monkeys knew something that John Watson and the experts of Infant Care failed to realise: mammals can’t live on food alone. They need emotional bonds too.
What Harry Harlow did to a few hundred monkeys, the meat and dairy industries are doing to billions of animals every year.
Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans.
Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs? Do humans have some magical spark, in addition to higher intelligence and greater power, which distinguishes them from pigs, chickens, chimpanzees and computer programs alike?
3 - The Human Spark
That’s why the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by ‘soul’ we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. Natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts.
To be frank, science knows surprisingly little about mind and consciousness.
Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life.
Maybe the mind should join the soul, God and ether in the dustbin of science? After all, no one has ever seen experiences of pain or love through a microscope, and we have a very detailed biochemical explanation for pain and love that leaves no room for subjective experiences. However, there is a crucial difference between mind and soul (as well as between mind and God). Whereas the existence of eternal souls is pure conjecture, the experience of pain is a direct and very tangible reality.
For example, what’s wrong with torture or rape? From a purely neurological perspective, when a human is tortured or raped certain biochemical reactions happen in the brain, and various electrical signals move from one bunch of neurons to another. What could possibly be wrong with that? Most modern people have ethical qualms about torture and rape because of the subjective experiences involved. If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant, their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience.
Indeed, doctors have recently managed to communicate with such patients using fMRI imaging. They ask the patients yes/no questions, telling them to imagine themselves playing tennis if the answer is yes, and to visualise the location of their home if the answer is no. The doctors can then observe how the motor cortex lights up when patients imagine playing tennis (meaning ‘yes’), whereas ‘no’ is indicated by the activation of brain areas responsible for spatial memory.
None of our scientific breakthroughs has managed to overcome this notorious Problem of Other Minds.
The Turing Test is simply a replication of a mundane test every gay man had to undergo in 1950s Britain: can you pass for a straight man?
Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of co-operating flexibly in large numbers.
If you want to launch a revolution, don’t ask yourself, ‘How many people support my ideas?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘How many of my supporters are capable of effective collaboration?’ The Russian Revolution finally erupted not when 180 million peasants rose against the tsar, but rather when a handful of communists placed themselves at the right place at the right time. In 1917, at a time when the Russian upper and middle classes numbered at least 3 million people, the Communist Party had just 23,000 members.
Ceauşescu and his cronies dominated 20 million Romanians for four decades because they ensured three vital conditions. First, they placed loyal communist apparatchiks in control of all networks of cooperation, such as the army, trade unions and even sports associations. Second, they prevented the creation of any rival organisations – whether political, economic or social – which might serve as a basis for anti-communist cooperation. Third, they relied on the support of sister communist parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
As Frederick watched his troops assemble for the invasion, he told one of his generals that what struck him most about the scene was that ‘we are standing here in perfect safety, looking at 60,000 men – they are all our enemies, and there is not one of them who is not better armed and stronger than we are, and yet they all tremble in our presence, while we have no reason whatsoever to be afraid of them’.
All large-scale human cooperation is ultimately based on our belief in imagined orders. These are sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity.
It is relatively easy to accept that money is an intersubjective reality. Most people are also happy to acknowledge that ancient Greek gods, evil empires and the values of alien cultures exist only in the imagination. Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives. We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another. Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories.
PART II - Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World
4 - The Storytellers
The Sumerian gods fulfilled a function analogous to modern brands and corporations. Today, corporations are fictional legal entities that own property, lend money, hire employees and initiate economic enterprises. In the ancient cities of Uruk, Lagash and Shurupak the gods functioned as legal entities that could own fields and slaves, give and receive loans, pay salaries and build dams and canals.
If you used a time machine to send a modern scientist to ancient Egypt, she would not be able to seize power by exposing the fictions of the local priests and lecturing the peasants on evolution, relativity and quantum physics. Of course, if our scientist could use her knowledge in order to produce a few rifles and artillery pieces, she could gain a huge advantage over pharaoh and the crocodile god Sobek. Yet in order to mine iron ore, build blast furnaces and manufacture gunpowder the scientist would need a lot of hard-working peasants. Do you really think she could inspire them by explaining that energy divided by mass equals the speed of light squared? If you happen to think so, you are welcome to travel to present-day Afghanistan or Syria and try your luck.
When examining the history of any human network, it is therefore advisable to stop from time to time and look at things from the perspective of some real entity. How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’ When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.
In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.
5 - The Odd Couple
Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.
Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you are accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but that humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.
However, just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour. Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit.
In Zen Buddhism it is said that ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Which means that if while walking on the spiritual path you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutionalised Buddhism, you must free yourself from them too.
For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat. Religions typically strive to rein in the spiritual quests of their followers, and many religious systems have been challenged not by laypeople preoccupied with food, sex and power, but rather by spiritual truth-seekers who expected more than platitudes. Thus the Protestant revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church was ignited not by hedonistic atheists but rather by a devout and ascetic monk, Martin Luther. Luther wanted answers to the existential questions of life, and refused to settle for the rites, rituals and deals offered by the Church.
From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies.
More importantly, science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions. Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave.
Though science indeed deals only with facts, religion never confines itself to ethical judgements. Religion cannot provide us with any practical guidance unless it makes some factual claims too, and here it may well collide with science.
When we descend from the ethereal sphere of philosophy and observe historical realities, we find that religious stories almost always include three parts:
- Ethical judgements, such as "human life is sacred"
- Factual statements, such as "human life begins at the moment of conception"
- A conflation of the ethical judgements with the factual statements, resulting in practical guidelines such as "you should never allow abortion, even a single day after conception".
most peer-reviewed scientific studies agree that the Bible is a collection of numerous different texts composed by different human authors centuries after the events they purport to describe, and that these texts were not assembled into a single holy book until long after biblical times.
During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite gradually formed. Due partly to Persian and Greek influences, Jewish scholars who wrote and interpreted texts gained increasing prominence. These scholars eventually came to be known as rabbis, and the texts they compiled were christened ‘the Bible’. Rabbinical authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than on birth. The clash between this new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD while suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism – a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors – disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars. The scholars’ main forte was interpretation. They used this ability not only to explain how an almighty God allowed His temple to be destroyed, but also to bridge the immense gaps between the old Judaism described in biblical stories and the very different Judaism they created.
Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders. Even universities and laboratories need religious backing. Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and the uses of scientific discoveries. Hence you cannot understand the history of science without taking religious beliefs into account. Scientists seldom dwell on this fact, but the Scientific Revolution itself began in one of the most dogmatic, intolerant and religious societies in history.
Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had the highest concentration of religious fanatics in the world, and the lowest level of tolerance.
It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.
Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.
It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism.
6 - The Modern Covenant
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.
The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance.
On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.
For thousands of years people had little faith in future growth not because they were stupid, but because it contradicts our gut feelings, our evolutionary heritage and the way the world works.
during the Cold War both capitalists and communists believed in creating heaven on earth through economic growth, and wrangled only about the exact method.
Yet is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
The real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse.
Too many politicians and voters believe that as long as the economy grows, scientists and engineers could always save us from doomsday. When it comes to climate change, many growth true-believers don’t just hope for miracles – they take it for granted that the miracles will happen.
People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.
7 - The Humanist Revolution
This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning. The great political, artistic and religious project of modernity has been to find a meaning to life that is not rooted in some great cosmic plan.
According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world. Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God; rather, it was gaining faith in humanity.
Meaning and authority always go hand in hand.
As the source of meaning and authority relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe – hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls – became empty space. The interior world – hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions – became deep and rich beyond measure.
When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, this is what he meant. At least in the West, God has become an abstract idea that some accept and others reject, but it makes little difference either way. In the Middle Ages, without a god I had no source of political, moral and aesthetic authority. I could not tell what was right, good or beautiful. Who could live like that? Today, in contrast, it is very easy not to believe in God, because I pay no price for my unbelief. I can be a complete atheist and still derive a very rich mixture of political, moral and aesthetical values from my inner experience.
In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures × Logic.
The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics.
However, humanism offered an alternative. As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity.
Humanism thus sees life as a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences. The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences. In the early nineteenth century Wilhelm von Humboldt – one of the chief architects of the modern education system – said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’. He also wrote that ‘there is only one summit in life – to have taken the measure in feeling of everything human’. This could well be the humanist motto.
Paradoxically, this narrative has become so influential that today it is told over and over again even by teachers, film-makers and eloquent politicians. ‘War is not what you see in the movies!’ warn Hollywood blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Blackhawk Down. Enshrined in celluloid, prose or poetry, the feelings of the ordinary grunt have become the ultimate authority on war, which everyone has learned to respect. As the joke goes, ‘How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.’
People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters.
Accordingly, in many cases liberalism has fused with age-old collective identities and tribal feelings to form modern nationalism. Today many associate nationalism with anti-liberal forces, but at least during the nineteenth century nationalism was closely aligned with liberalism.
Whereas liberalism merged with the milder versions of nationalism to protect the unique experiences of each human community, evolutionary humanists such as Hitler identified particular nations as the engines of human progress and concluded that these nations ought to bludgeon or even exterminate anyone standing in their way. It should be remembered, though, that Hitler and the Nazis represent only one extreme version of evolutionary humanism. Just as Stalin’s gulags do not automatically nullify every socialist idea and argument, so too the horrors of Nazism should not blind us to whatever insights evolutionary humanism might offer. Nazism was born from the pairing of evolutionary humanism with particular racial theories and ultra-nationalist emotions. Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps. Auschwitz should serve as a blood-red warning sign rather than as a black curtain that hides entire sections of the human horizon. Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century.
A socialist true-believer will explain that the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole. As Mao said, ‘There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.’
According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality.
Washington hailed itself as the leader of the free world, but most of its allies were either authoritarian kings (such as King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of Morocco and the Persian shah) or military dictators (such as the Greek colonels, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, General Park in South Korea, General Geisel in Brazil and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan).
As of 2016 there is no serious alternative to the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market.
Nobody seems to know what the Chinese believe these days – including the Chinese themselves. In theory China is still communist, but in practice it is nothing of the kind. Some Chinese thinkers and leaders toy with a return to Confucianism, but that’s hardly more than a convenient facade. This ideological vacuum makes China the most promising breeding ground for the new techno-religions emerging from Silicon Valley
Pius led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma and established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the Pope can never err in matters of faith (this seemingly medieval idea became binding Catholic dogma only in 1870, eleven years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species).
Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. ‘Communism is power to worker councils,’ he said, ‘plus electrification of the whole country.’ There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio.
Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force.
When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.
PART III Homo Sapiens Loses Control
8 - The Time Bomb in the Laboratory
To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’.
If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?’ Try that, and see what happens.
Sally Adee’s twenty-minute experience may be quite exceptional (or perhaps even the outcome of the notorious placebo effect).
Yet if I really pay attention and strive to get in touch with myself, I am bound to discover deep inside a single, clear and authentic voice, which is my true self, and which is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. For liberalism to make sense, I must have one – and only one – true self, for if I had more than one authentic voice, how would I know which voice to heed in the polling station, in the supermarket and in the marriage market? However, over the last few decades the life sciences have reached the conclusion that this liberal story is pure mythology.
But there is a third option, much more complex and profound. As long as he fought imaginary giants, Don Quixote was just play-acting. However once he actually kills someone, he will cling to his fantasies for all he is worth, because only they give meaning to his tragic misdeed. Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold on to it, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused. In politics this is known as the ‘Our Boys Didn’t Die in Vain’ syndrome.
While it’s difficult for a politician to tell parents that their son died for no good reason, it is far more painful for parents to say this to themselves – and it is even harder for the victims. A crippled soldier who lost his legs would rather tell himself, ‘I sacrificed myself for the glory of the eternal Italian nation!’ than ‘I lost my legs because I was stupid enough to believe self-serving politicians.’ It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.
Priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago. It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.
Eventually, if we want to come clean about past mistakes, our narrating self must invent some twist in the plot that will infuse these mistakes with meaning.
9 - The Great Decoupling
Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might make this belief obsolete:
- Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
- The system will continue to find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
- The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will constitute a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.
Is it a coincidence that universal rights were proclaimed at the precise historical juncture when universal conscription was decreed?
Humans are in danger of losing their economic value because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
Science fiction movies generally assume that in order to match and surpass human intelligence, computers will have to develop consciousness. But real science tells a different story. There might be several alternative ways leading to super-intelligence, only some of which pass through the straits of consciousness.
This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness? As long as they went hand in hand, debating their relative value was just an amusing pastime for philosophers. But in the twenty-first century this is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.
The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.
If the algorithm makes the right decisions, it could accumulate a fortune, which it could then invest as it sees fit, perhaps buying your house and becoming your landlord. If you infringe on the algorithm’s legal rights – say, by not paying rent – the algorithm could hire lawyers and sue you in court. If such algorithms consistently outperform human capitalists, we might end up with an algorithmic upper class owning most of our planet. This may sound impossible, but before dismissing the idea, remember that most of our planet is already legally owned by non-human intersubjective entities, namely nations and corporations. Indeed, 5,000 years ago much of Sumer was owned by imaginary gods such as Enki and Inanna. If gods can possess land and employ people, why not algorithms?
Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.
Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside. Yet such a development would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences. What’s so sacred about useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences in La La Land?
Algorithms won’t revolt and enslave us. Rather, they will be so good at making decisions for us that it would be madness not to follow their advice.
Liberal habits such as democratic elections will become obsolete, because Google will be able to represent even my own political opinions better than I can.
When everybody uses the same oracle, and everybody believes the oracle, the oracle turns into a sovereign.
Yet once biologists concluded that organisms are algorithms, they dismantled the wall between the organic and inorganic, turned the computer revolution from a purely mechanical affair into a biological cataclysm, and shifted authority from individual humans to networked algorithms.
The third threat to liberalism is that some people will remain both indispensable and undecipherable, but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans.
Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy. Healing the sick was an egalitarian project, because it assumed that there is a normative standard of physical and mental health that everyone can and should enjoy. If someone fell below the norm, it was the job of doctors to fix the problem and help him or her ‘be like everyone’. In contrast, upgrading the healthy is an elitist project, because it rejects the idea of a universal standard applicable to all and seeks to give some individuals an edge over others.
But the age of the masses may be over, and with it the age of mass medicine.
10 - The Ocean of Consciousness
Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley.
These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion.
Modern Western culture is therefore unique in lacking a specialised class of people who seek to experience extraordinary mental states. It believes anyone attempting to do so is a drug addict, mental patient or charlatan.
Not surprisingly then, positive psychology has become the trendiest subfield of the discipline. In the 1990s leading experts such as Martin Seligman, Ed Dinner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argued that psychology should study not just mental illnesses, but also mental strengths. How come we have a remarkably detailed atlas of the sick mind, but no scientific map of the prosperous mind? Over the last two decades, positive psychology has made important first steps in the study of super-normative mental states, but as of 2016, the super-normative zone is largely terra incognita to science.
As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the herd that stirs up the most trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animals’ mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who communicate and process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can barely pay attention, dream or doubt.
Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers the human will to be the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign the will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet should we ever achieve such control, techno-humanism would not know what to do with it, because the sacred human would then become just another designer product. We can never deal with such technologies as long as we believe that the human will and the human experience are the supreme source of authority and meaning.
11 - The Data Religion
Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. This may strike you as some eccentric fringe notion, but in fact it has already conquered most of the scientific establishment.
You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition.
The governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data. The NSA may be spying on our every word, but to judge by the repeated failures of American foreign policy, nobody in Washington knows what to do with all the data. Never in history did a government know so much about what’s going on in the world – yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as the contemporary United States.
Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently, in the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration.
It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces, because these forces do what’s good for the market rather than what’s good for humankind or for the world. The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices it may fail to do anything at all about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence.
Ruthless billionaires and small interest groups flourish in today’s chaotic world not because they read the map better than anyone else, but because they have very narrow aims. In a chaotic system, tunnel vision has its advantages, and the billionaires’ power is strictly proportional to their goals. When the world’s richest tycoons want to make another billion dollars, they can easily game the system in order to do so. In contrast, if they felt inclined to reduce global inequality or stop global warming, even they wouldn’t be able to do it, because the system is far too complex.
No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn’t a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.
undermines our primary source of authority and meaning and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from a deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from a homo-centric to a data-centric view.
Our love, our fear and our passion aren’t some nebulous spiritual phenomena good only for composing poetry. Rather, they encapsulate millions of years of practical wisdom. When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbis who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection. Your feelings are the voice of millions of ancestors, each of whom managed to survive and reproduce in an unforgiving environment. Your feelings are not infallible, of course, but they are better than most other sources of guidance. For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world. Hence in the days of Confucius, of Muhammad or of Stalin, people should have listened to their feelings rather than to the teachings of Confucianism, Islam or communism.
We are developing superior algorithms that utilise unprecedented computing power and giant databases. The Google and Facebook algorithms not only know exactly how you feel, they also know myriad other things about you that you hardly suspect. Consequently you should stop listening to your feelings and start listening to these external algorithms instead.
A critical examination of Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project.
It is very difficult to contest a scientific paradigm, but up till now, no single paradigm has been adopted by the entire scientific establishment.
In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.
In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.
Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:
- Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
- Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
- Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
For a detailed discussion see Michael S. Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (New York: Ecco, 2011).
Wu Youyou, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, ‘Computer-Based Personality Judgements Are More Accurate Than Those Made by Humans’, PNAS 112:4 (2015), 1036–40.